Jimm Sillars: Peace on berth

Africa Mercy found that 90 per cent of the world's population could be reached from ports. Picture: Getty
Africa Mercy found that 90 per cent of the world's population could be reached from ports. Picture: Getty
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As an ex-Royal Navy regular I’ve kept an eye on the service. As its manpower was seriously reduced it became obvious that both Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers being built in Scotland would not be used. The navy simply doesn’t have enough people to crew the second one, and they don’t know what to do with it.

When I came to draft the sections of my book In Place of Fear II, I pencilled in “better use of aircraft carrier”. A sensible independent Scottish Government would not want it as a warship. Aircraft carriers are instruments for projecting hard power – that is killing power on the international scene: the kind of “influence” that is so dear to the hearts of the little imperialist thinkers like Foreign Secretary William Hague, and Tony Blair before him.

Yet, there it is, this 70,000-tonne ship with no role. Could it be sold at a knock-down price to a foreign government who wanted, like Westminster, to project hard power? The Chinese perhaps? No, the Americans would object to that. The Indian navy? Probably not as they have their own. Argentina? Not likely. A scrapyard in Turkey where the Ark Royal wound up? That would be too big a scandal. So I had an idea – a hospital ship. Just an idea.

I did research on hospital ships, especially the 16,5000-tonne Africa Mercy. That charity, when it did its original research, found that 90 per cent of the world’s population could be reached from ports, which meant that they were able to provide people with medical care well beyond the shoreline of most African countries. I found the work done by that ship, and its medical teams, a source of inspiration. The ship has five operating theatres, an 82-bed recovery ward, CT scanner, X-ray machines and a laboratory. In one year its medical teams did 3300 surgical operations, thousands of eye and dental treatments, and trained over 12,000 Africans in health care.

That was when my idea for the second carrier crystallised. If a 16,500-tonne hospital ship could do all that, what could a 70,000-tonne hospital ship do in Africa and Asia? So, in my book I argue that an independent Scottish Government should take that second carrier, a liability for Westminster, and convert it into a combined hospital and emergency rescue vessel. Some people I discussed it with thought I would be open to mockery. That was possible, but why should people mock a ship being converted from one whose purpose is killing people into one that aims to heal people? So I have stuck to it as a policy with merit.

If my idea comes to fruition the carrier will be named The Robert Burns, after a man whose poetry preaches humanity. It will fly the Saltire, and cost £35 million a year to run. So where is the money to come from? At present we pay around £1.1 billion a year towards UK defence costs. That money will be available to an independent government, and it is from that budget, meaning no extra money, that the hospital ship cost will be met. Moreover, my proposal goes further: it will provide 200 places, in addition to crew and medical staff, for a new Scottish Overseas Service for young people who will serve for a year in aiding Africans and Asians, giving them a better understanding of the issues to be addressed in the world outside Scotland.

I didn’t develop this idea to give an independent Scotland a worldwide reputation for humanitarian aid, but if that carrier finally sets sail as a hospital ship, that is what will happen. No more sending our young people out to engage in conflicts. Sending them out to challenge man’s inhumanity to man would be something we could all be proud of. In a sense this idea underpins what independence is about – being able to think and act differently once we get the hand of London off our shoulders.

Same old bread and circuses . .

WAYNE Rooney on £300,000 a week. Always the same for big ‘sports’ entertainers. In the Eastern Roman Empire, highest paid were chariot drivers. Two factions, the Green and Blue. Nothing changes.

So, have we learned yet?

FRANK Boyle’s cartoon of me will hang on our wall beside the 1979 cartoon showing a Scottish Lion, facing a yes or no, hunkering down saying “I’m Feart”. We paid a big Thatcher price for that fear.

Change your constitution then take power and change government

NO side’s tactic is clear – make Alex Salmond indistinguishable from independence, so Labour voters think a Yes endorses him, and will vote against. Big mistake. If you want to give him a bloody nose, vote Yes this year and evict him from Bute House in the first independence elections by replacing him with a real Scottish Labour Government. Salmond is mortal, the nation is immortal. The referendum is about the nation.